Saturday, November 1, 2014


I heard Erik Larson speak years ago (2003? 2004?) when one of his books had just come out, and his talk stuck with me. I'd never heard of a book like his, and I was blown away by the amount of research he'd done. The book: THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY: MURDER, MAGIC, AND MADNESS AT THE FAIR THAT CHANGED AMERICA.

Larson focuses his story on the main architect of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and the serial killer who capitalized on the crowds brought by the fair. Creepy premise, right? Here's where you need to hang on to your corsets: the story is nonfiction!

My daughter, a college student, has always loved nonfiction, and I told her about DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY last year, before I'd even read it--as I said, Erik Larson's talk stuck with me. She read the book and told me I had to read it.

I'm so glad I did!

The 1893 World's Fair comes to life in Larson's book. His meticulous research tells of late 19th century Chicago, bringing the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the time to the page. He captures the people of the era--their hopes, fears, concerns, and realities--zooming in on two unique men whose lives unexpectedly intertwine. Larson weaves all of his facts into a beautifully crafted story. It might be described as "real history meets CSI," and it's fascinating.

I finished reading the book in early September, but I keep thinking about it. Much like Larson's talk, his book seems to be sticking with me.

* * *


The book won an Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, and it was a National Book Award Finalist. Leonardo DiCaprio acquired the rights to turn the story into a feature film, and he plans to play Dr. H. H. Holmes, the serial killer.

"A wonderfully unexpected book... Larson is a historian... with a novelist's soul."
--Chicago Sun-Times Review

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Have you read any outstanding books lately, specifically something outside the genre in which you write?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

It takes a village to raise a writer

What a week! Critique partners Faith Pray and Jennifer Mann each gave me beautiful direction, for which I'm grateful, early in the week. Thursday night, I zipped over to Seattle Pacific University where Writers House agent Brianne Johnson kicked off the first of this season's SCBWI Western Washington Professional Series Meetings. She returned Friday for manuscript consultations and a delicious, detail-rich talk about writing middle-grade novels. Then, as if my brain wasn't full enough, Field's End hosted bestselling author Ann Hood who shared concrete revision tips at her Saturday lecture, titled "How to be Your Own Best Editor."

Now I need to process and start mining it all as I dig back into my manuscript. I am fired up, bloggy friends! Time to write!

How about you? Has a critique partner, a class, a conference, a workshop, or a book on craft recently given you major help or inspiration? Do tell! Feel free to give a shout-out to your critique partners!

*I should note that if you ever have the opportunity to hear either Brianne Johnson or Ann Hood speak, leap on it!

Monday, September 29, 2014

So you want to be a racehorse--or an author

A weekend trip to Emerald Downs with my husband and my dad made me come to an odd conclusion: the advice one might give to a racehorse (in bold below) can also be applied to writers. Really! I know it sounds more than a little weird, but just go with it.

Take your training seriously. Practice, practice, practice.
Respect craft, and do whatever you can to get your writing to the next level. Take classes, go to conferences, and write, whether you feel your muse or not. Keep office hours.

Figure out how you can eliminate distractions. Some horses use blinkers (blinders) to help with focus.
If the Internet is a problem for you, limit how often you check e-mail, Facebook, etc. I usually write at home, but I'll work in a coffee shop if I'm getting distracted by a home to-do list or if I feel working elsewhere will help me make the most of my writing time.

Don't feel bad about being a long shot.
Remember J.K. Rowling wasn't always a sure thing.

If you see someone else's tail in front of you, you're following instead of leading.
Don't chase trends. By the time it's clear that something is a trend, it's probably too late to start writing about it.

Don't put yourself out to pasture too early.
Never give up.

If you don't run the race, you can't win the race.
Again, never give up. Keep trying!

Cross your hooves that you'll get a good position in the gate so you can come out strong.
Timing can be a b*tch. Sometimes it seems everyone came up with the same idea you did. It's not fun when this happens, but try to remember that no writing is wasted. The market is cyclical, and you can put your manuscript in the drawer for the future. Otherwise, you can use parts of it for other stories or consider it extra practice. Trust me when I say I know this is easier said than done.

Don't eat moldy carrots, and remember that grains help keep you regular.
Just saying.

Polish your horseshoes.
You never know when you'll get a bit of unexpected luck.

Establish a good track record.
Be professional.

Experiment to figure out your strengths.
Just as some horses do better in long races than short ones, some writers are better at novels instead of picture books. Also, while horses handle various track conditions, writers can play with genre.

Remember your inner-filly to tap into her wild spirit.
If you write for young people, think about what it felt like to be one rather than writing from your grown-up perspective. Also, try to recall what you were reading when you figured out you were a writer. I was reading books by E. B. White and Beverly Cleary. By age eleven, I was hooked on Walter Farley's Black Stallion series, which you may have guessed. These same books still light a fire for me. 

Work with the best trainers and jockeys that you can.
Join SCBWI if you write for children or young adults to learn from the pros.

Keep smiling, and don't be a naysayer--or neighsayer--unless you're a horse, of course!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What's Hot at Eagle Harbor Book Company

Seattle currently has blue skies and a strange, bright orb shining down and heating the area. How weird is that?! Yet the weather isn't the only thing that's hot around here. Victoria from Eagle Harbor Book Company let me in on which books sold best this week so I could share the top reads with you. Yes, siree, we're talkin' 'bout what's hot in children's and YA at Eagle Harbor Book Company!

You'll notice John Green's books pop up quite a bit on the list. Since Green is kind of like money (and he sells a heckuva lot of books) or perhaps envy (again, he sells a heckuva lot of books), maybe I have to rethink my name. I know! I should write under Dawn Sellsaheckuvalotofbooks! And here I was foolishly working on craft when all I needed was a new nom de plume! Tee-hee!

Of course, it's not about the money for us. I mean, becoming a writer isn't exactly the best get-rich-quick scheme. Another "of course"? John Green is an amazing writer. Yeah, let's disregard the new-name idea and go back to focusing on craft.

Moving on!

This week's list, starting with #1! Ready. Set. Go!

by John Green

by Gary Blackwood

THE SASQUATCH ESCAPE/The Imaginary Veterinary: Book 1
written by Suzanne Selfors and illustrated by Dan Santat
(Woot! Woot! for Suzanne!)

written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

by Scott O'Dell

by John Green

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (movie cover version)
by John Green

by Markus Zusak

by John Skewes

written by Jane O'Connor and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser

by John Green

*Summer reading title for a local school

Bookseller Victoria noted that THE FAULT IN OUR STARS was #2 for all best sellers in the store. BOYS IN THE BOAT was #1, and CUCKOO'S CALLING was #3. THE ILIAD is also high up on this week's overall best sellers list because of a local school's summer reading.

More info from Victoria:
-The bookstore is hosting a Young Adult/New Adult NW Summer Book Tour event on Sunday, August 3, at 3 p.m. The event will feature eight local writers of these genres. "They will do a panel discussion about their work, and how they draw the line between YA and NA." There will be door prizes.

-Eagle Harbor Book Company has also started a graphic novel summertime book group for kids who are 6-10 years old. Victoria said the first meeting on July 10 was a blast. "We had Dav Pilkey pop in to join Sue Nevins (bookseller from across the water and kids' graphic novel specialist) and the fabulous Dana Sullivan! The kids were rockin', too." Here are some pics from the event. (Dav is on the left, Dana's on the right. Dana, LET ME KNOW the next time you have an event at EHBC!)

This is part of the storyboard the kids came up with while working with Dav and Dana.

Victoria said, "If there are graphic artists among your readers who'd like to join us for one of our weekly sessions and work with the kids, we'd love to be in touch!"

-Kirby Larson will be at the bookstore in late August to launch her new book, DASH.

* * *

Thank you, Victoria, for passing along so much great information! I always find it interesting to learn what's selling locally.

Blog friends, what are you currently reading? I'm reading GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

To Scrivener, or not to Scrivener--that is the question.

I considered trying Scrivener two or three years ago, but I never did. I think I was most concerned with how easy or difficult it would be to export my manuscript into Word, and I never looked further into it. Then last week, author Becky Levine started an interesting discussion about Scrivener on Facebook. It got me thinking about Scrivener again. Now I think I might try it.

For those of you unfamiliar with Scrivener, it's a software application that was designed for novelists, though other types of writers use it as well. (Note: I don't work for Scrivener and, as far as I know, I don't know anyone who does.) The website says it's a "word processor and project management tool that stays with you from that first, unformed idea all the way through the final draft. Outline and structure your ideas, take notes, view research alongside your writing and compose the constituent pieces of your text in isolation or in context. Scrivener won't tell you how to write--it just makes all the tools you have scattered around your desk available in one application." Which all sounds pretty cool. The website also offers a 30-day free trial.

How many of you use Scrivener? If you have experience with it, do you like it? Is it helpful? What are your favorite and least favorite parts? If you have not yet tried it, do you plan to? Pros and cons, bloggy friends! Let's hear them!

In other matters, how many of you remember the old Almond Joy/Mounds commercials? (If you click on the link, check out those 70s styles!)

Pepper says,

 "Sometimes I feel like a nut.

Sometimes I don't."

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Truly-good Fiction

I recently read THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. I was already a John Green fan, but for some reason it took me 20,000 years (give or take 19,998) to pick this one up. I'm so glad I finally did! What a book!

Truly-good fiction has that stick-to-your-ribs quality, feeding us as humans, nourishing us as writers.

As a reader, I love it when I find myself underlining sentences in a book because they give clarity to something, or about someone, in my life--regardless of the book's subject matter. It can happen with realistic fiction, fantasy, or whatever. My life may not look like Hazel's or Augustus's, but passages of Green's novel made me feel I was meant to read his book, and exactly when I did. You guys know what I mean, right? It's that feeling when something resonates, allowing you to understand an event, problem, or incident at a deeper level, maybe even inspiring you to be a better person or to not take a day for granted just because it was uneventful or imperfect. Without being didactic, good fiction can touch the heart and reveal truth.

An example of another book that unexpectedly reached me: THE GIVER by Lois Lowry.

I tacked a quote from Lowry's book to my corkboard years ago, and it's still there--and I still search it out, pushing aside character sketches or whatever else may be hiding it, to read it.

As writers, we can learn from well-written novels, and what we read colors how we write. Kristin Cashore's gorgeous descriptions inspire me to work at improving my own. While reading THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, a few of the many things that struck me were the characters, dialogue (of course--John Green!), and setting. Regarding setting (something I've been focusing on lately in my WIP), I can see the various places in the book so clearly, yet Green describes each one without wasting words, efficiently and beautifully. How does he do that?! And he makes it look so easy! By reading and studying his work, maybe a shadow of something can cross into mine. I hope! I'm currently reading WHY WE BROKE UP by Daniel Handler, and I'm totally hooked on his main characters. Whether writing as Lemony Snicket or under his real name, Daniel Handler has a strong voice, and I'm impressed he can vary it the way he does.

Fiction, by definition, isn't real life, yet it has the potential to be powerful, to help us understand or appreciate real life. There have always been storytellers to explain, to entertain, to connect. Stories are important. There's so much to aspire to, so much to learn.

What books have recently touched or inspired you?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Interview with Author and Illustrator Jennifer K. Mann

Jennifer K. Mann worked many years designing stores as an architect for a large architecture firm in Seattle. Then she had two children and, through reading them beautiful picture books, discovered that she really wanted to be a picture book author and illustrator.

Jennifer's debut as an illustrator was in October 2013 with Turkey Tot (Holiday House), written by author George Shannon. Two Speckled Eggs (Candlewick Press) marks her debut as author and illustrator. Her next book, I Definitely Will Never Get a Star on Mrs. Benson's Blackboard (Candlewick Press), will hit shelves in 2015.

Something so inspiring to me is that while it may appear that Jen is an "overnight success," she has been working hard on craft for years. You can see her climb by the dates of her awards. In 2007, she won Second Runner Up in the SCBWI Western Washington Annual Conference Portfolio Showcase. She was the 2008 First Runner Up, and the 2009 Grand Prize Winner. In 2010, Jen was awarded the SCBWI Don Freeman Grant in Aid for Illustrators. Currently, Jen volunteers as the SCBWI Western Washington Illustrator Coordinator, helping and inspiring others. She and the talented Margaret Nevinski are my critique partners.

 * * *

Dawn: Jen, I am super happy and honored to have you here for an interview! Thank you for taking the time!

I always think it's interesting to hear about early influences. Who most influenced you as a writer? As an illustrator?

Jen: As a writer and illustrator I would say I am most influenced by John Burningham, Polly Dunbar, Oliver Jeffers, and Kevin Henkes. I love their writing, and I love their art. When I was just starting to teach myself how to do this, my illustration "bible" was a wonderful picture book by Mary Lyn Ray and illustrated by Barry Root, called Alvah and Arvilla, and I also spent quite a lot of time looking at Judy Schachner's The Grannyman. Thank goodness my children had such a nice library of books--reading to them is really how I came to realize that this is what I wanted to do!

Dawn: Tell us about your illustrating process.

Jen: It's a little long and complicated to explain in detail here. But basically I do my line work and painting with traditional materials, like pencil and pen and watercolor, and then I scan them into my computer and use Photoshop to collage them into spreads. Sometimes I incorporate photographs, or textures that I have made in Photoshop, or found on websites that allow free use of downloadable textures.

Dawn: The photos and textures in your illustrations are just a couple of the numerous things I admire about your work. There's so much expression in every character, you "zoom in" on all the right moments, and every page is a joy to experience. Lovely!

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors and illustrators?

Jen: Read and study tons and tons of picture books, if that is what you want to create, and take note of what appeals to you. If you are a writer, study the way the story is composed. Examine closely the choice of words, the moments that make you want to turn the page, the rhythm of the story and how it changes over the course of the book. Consider typing out the entire text so that your whole body can experience its qualities. If you are an illustrator, try mimicking your favorite artists and illustrators, just to find out how they do what they do. Look closely at how they knit the images with the words. How do they direct the scenes? Your own style will always show up in your work, but you will absorb the lessons of the masters if you look closely.

Dawn: May I say how much I love that answer? Love! In the past, I've heard you talk about the ways you've studied and broken down favorite picture books, and it still blows me away. Truly, it's fascinating.

What are you working on now?

Jen: Right now I am working on the final art for another picture book that Candlewick will publish next year. It is called I Definitely Will Never Get a Star on Mrs. Benson's Blackboard. The art is due May 15, and I still have lots to do!!

Dawn: Good luck! I know it will be beautiful! Thank you again for the interview.

* * *


Two Speckled Eggs was selected for the Spring 2014 Kids' Indie Next List--"Inspired Recommendations for Kids from Indie Booksellers."

Publishers Weekly:
Ginger doesn't want weird, nerdy Lyla Browning at her birthday party, but Mom insists she "invite all of the girls in her class--or none of them." When her guests play fast and loose with her party plans ("Maya and Julia stuck all the tails for Pin the Tail on the Donkey on each other"), and the birthday cake is not a hit, Ginger realizes that Lyla may actually be kind of cool. Certainly, her present is: a handmade bird's nest worthy of Martha Stewart, with two malted-milk eggs inside. In a nod to geek pride, illustrator Mann (Turkey Tot), in her debut as an author, doesn't portray Lyla as a needy, sad wallflower--instead, Lyla is entirely self-assured and independent (though she's also open to making a new friend in Ginger). Mann understands well how peers can disappoint and parties can go wrong, and her scraggly-lined drawings, filled in with washes of soft color and set against white backgrounds, give a strong sense of Ginger's emotional vulnerability and the unanticipated possibilities offered by Lyla's friendship. Ages 5-8. Agent: Holly McGhee, Pipping Properties. (Apr.)

Two opposites may not be as opposite as they imagined in Mann's look at grade school cliques and oddballs.

Ginger wants to invite all the girls in her class but Lyla Browning to her birthday party. Lyla wears drab clothes and glasses, and her affection for insects (not to mention her pet tarantula) is certainly unpopular among Ginger's crowd of friends. But Ginger's mom says it's all or none, so Lyla's invited too. But Ginger's friends turn out not to be the best party guests, doing whatever they want and ruining the games. At this point, Lyla is just part of the background with her ever-present magnifying glass. But that changes when she is the only one to appreciate the much-anticipated "silver-and-gold cake." And Lyla's present turns out to be the most thoughtful of all--a handmade bird's nest with two speckled malted-milk eggs in the center (two peas in a pod, anyone?)--and the start of a lasting friendship. Mann's pencil, gouache and digital collage illustrations keep the focus on the girls, their bright clothes and accessories standing out against the white background. The placement of characters in page composition plays a large part in getting Mann's message across, girls either center stage or relegated to the background (if they're even on the page at all!).

Readers may not look at their classmates the same again. (Picture book. 5-8)

* * *

For those of you in the Seattle area: Jen will be having a book event at 3:00 tomorrow, April 27, at Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island! I'll be there for sure!